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The sensory feel of clay

By on January 28, 2019 in Arts with 1 Comment

When she’s not teaching, Mijanou Fortney  is busy building, firing, glazing and painting her own work. Photos by Kevin Farrell

By Marlene Farrell

Serendipity started Mijanou Fortney on her journey of teaching pottery classes and opening her business, MF Pottery. 

She took a roundabout path to art. She grew up in Montana and majored in anthropology at Bates College in Maine, where she met her husband, Steve. It wasn’t until later, through some community college art classes, that Mijanou’s passion for pottery took hold.

Then, five years ago and new to Leavenworth, her children, Eli and Sally, began attending the daycare on the Tierra Village campus in Sunitch Canyon. A friend told Mijanou about the unused studio space and art supplies, waiting to be used to further the vision of Tierra founder, Gracie Close. 

“I wrote a proposal,” Mijanou said. “And it’s been growing ever since.” Her current studio, renovated less than a year ago and triple in space, accommodates that growth. Now more students can work at a time without bumping elbows.

She holds a few classes at any one time. The TRAILS (Tierra’s Recreational Arts and Independent Life Skills) Program students come once every two weeks, some for all four years the program has been in existence. “I used to have to walk them through a project. Now they come to me with their ideas.”

Nicole Haskey, the TRAILS Day Program Director, spoke highly of Mijanou’s classes. “The participants are empowered with free choice of what they want to create, and that’s pretty powerful for a group of adults who have, for most of their lives, been told by others what to do and when to do it. The clay itself provides wonderful sensory opportunities.”

Andrew Holm, general manager at Tierra, said, “Mijanou is a cornerstone of Tierra, in her new corner space. Lots of people seem to gravitate her way as she displays an easy inclusiveness.”

Mijanou finds working with kids and adults refreshingly different. “Kids will prototype. They’ll make three versions of a mask and smash them all before making their final one. It’s non-attachment, and it keeps them from getting frustrated.” 

Adults come because they want to use the potter’s wheel. “The wheel does the work. At first students want to force it, muscle it. I try to explain, ‘it’s a feeling.’ I teach them the steps, but they won’t really know until they get that feeling.”

Mijanou sometimes creates straight edges and square handles: “Some would call it minimalist. I think the square handle feels better.”

When she’s not teaching, Mijanou is busy building, firing, glazing and painting her own work. Most of her pottery is dishware, but also includes oil and vinegar containers, sake sets, trays and soap dishes. 

Her clay of choice is a mix of stoneware and porcelain. Stoneware is stronger and firmer, while porcelain is buttery. “I know just how it’ll look with my glazes. Customers expect a certain look to my work.”

Nature and the outdoors come out as a theme in a lot of Mijanou’s work, because it’s important to her family. “Steve and I hiked the PCT in 2005, before kids. When the kids were little, we’d backpack with them on our backs. We’ve taken a lot of canoe trips and gotten all the car camping supplies. Now we’re ready to do more backpacking with them again.”

One of her signature pieces is a cup with a mountainscape, offered in several hues. For each one, she builds, trims, paints, and cleans up excess paint. Then she carves stripes on the cup as it rotates on the wheel again, and draws the mountains freehand.

Near her studio is a large patch of lavender, providing a steady supply to accent her trays. “I roll the lavender into the clay. I pull it out, but it leaves a depression.” 

One product speaks loudly for this artist with a quiet demeanor. “To me, the ‘RESIST’ mug is one small way to raise awareness through my art,” explained Mijanou. “It’s a reminder to stand up, speak out, vote, march, protest, do something to fight for the earth and the marginalized populations who don’t have a voice. It helped me convey my shock and outrage after the 2016 election. 

“The fist has been a symbol of unity and solidarity throughout history and today is part of pop culture. It’s an everyday reminder to fight the good fight. It is also my best-selling item.”

Mijanou steps out of the studio to help keep arts education alive in Leavenworth. “I’m bummed that art doesn’t get more funding in the schools,” she said. 

For several years, she worked in the local elementary school teaching Late Start Art, and now she’s on an advisory board for Cascade High School’s CTE department. In addition, every year she joins forces with other local potters to contribute to the Leavenworth Empty Bowls Festival, either throwing or firing bowls. 

Mijanou’s work has a distinct look to it, with mostly straight edges and square handles. “Some would call it minimalist. I think the square handle feels better.”

As her business ramps up and her studio’s shelves fill with dishes, she feels ready for it. “It’s not overwhelming. The studio is my refuge from house projects.” 

Mijanou will continue journeying on this artistic path because pottery suits her, the calm quiet, the meditative detail work and the satisfying creation of things both functional and beautiful.

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  1. Pam Goff says:

    I’d love to learn how to work with clay.

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